Alpine Botany

, Volume 129, Issue 2, pp 95–105 | Cite as

Contrasting impacts of climate change on the vegetation of windy ridges and snowbeds in the Swiss Alps

  • Loïc Liberati
  • Swanee Messerli
  • Magalì Matteodo
  • Pascal VittozEmail author
Original Article


The impacts of climate change on alpine summit floras have been widely investigated. However, only few studies included alpine grasslands and generally concluded that snowbeds, with a long snow cover duration and a short growing season, and windy ridges, with a short snow cover duration and strong winter frosts, are the most sensitive alpine grasslands. However, these habitats were mostly investigated in different regions, where local factors (e.g. nitrogen deposition, grazing) can co-vary with climate changes, potentially obscuring differences between habitats. Here, we focused on the Zermatt region (Swiss Alps) to investigate the impacts of climate change on snowbeds and windy ridges. Forty-three exhaustive historical plant inventories on windy ridges (acidophilic or basophilic) and 31 inventories in snowbeds (typical or wet) were repeated in quasi-permanent plots after approximately 23 years. Historical and recent records were compared with the Simpson index, Bray–Curtis dissimilarity, a PCA, ecological indicator values and the frequency and cover changes of species. There was a general increase in α-diversity and a decrease in β-diversity (homogenisation). Most of the new species in the plots were generalists from surrounding grasslands. The plant composition tended to be more thermophilous on acidophilic windy ridges and in typical snowbeds. The flora of acidophilic windy ridges became more similar to that of basophilic windy ridges and more eutrophic. We interpreted this as possibly arising from fertilisation by the aeolian dust deposition coming from the expanding glacial moraine in the valley. In snowbeds, the species indicated increasingly drier conditions, especially in wet snowbeds. Warming climate induces lower snowfall and earlier snowmelt, leading to a shorter snow cover duration. Hence, wet snowbeds are certainly among the most threatened plant communities by climate change in the Alps.


Salicion herbaceae Elynion Snow cover Temperature Quasi-permanent plots Vegetation dynamics Switzerland 



We are grateful to J.-L. Richard, B. Bressoud, C. Käsermann, S. Krähenmann, F. Meyer and S. Reist who collected the historical data, to A. Steiner who transmitted them to us, to M. Vust for his help in lichen identification and to J. Alexander for English editing. We also thank the Burgergemeinde Zermatt for authorising this study on their properties and the Zermatt Bergbahnen AG for offering the travelling costs for the cable cars during fieldwork.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Declaration of authorship

All authors designed the study, LL and SM inventoried the plots in the fields and analysed the data under the advices of MM and PV, and all authors contributed to the manuscript.

Ethical statement

The authors declare that they respected ethical standards.

Informed consent

The investigation in the field was conducted with authorisation of the Burgergemeinde Zermatt.

Supplementary material

35_2019_223_MOESM1_ESM.docx (389 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 389 kb)


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Copyright information

© Swiss Botanical Society 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, Faculty of Geosciences and EnvironmentUniversity of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Systems Science, Institute of Integrative BiologyETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.LeysinSwitzerland
  4. 4.Chemin de Bonne-Espérance 28LausanneSwitzerland

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